Northern India (Part 4)

Day 20: Rishikesh – Haridwar

September 16

Strange start to the morning as there seems to be zero power in the hotel. Am writing this in the cold light through my window. Potentially a good thing as I was on the verge of booking a flight from Delhi to Kathmandu after reading my Rough Guide to Nepal’s advice on night buses i.e. do not take them if you value your possessions and/or limbs.

The rest of my hotel is waking up now. I can hear regular clicking as people check and re-check if their light switches are working. Just because it wasn’t sixteen seconds ago doesn’t mean it isn’t now. The regular power dips and unsteady connections that have dogged my journey seem to be the norm – though I do wonder how it affects the huge PUBG fanbase over here. Everywhere I turn there are tshirts with the game’s logo, and I can’t imagine the players just accept power outages with equanimity.

Photo from a final walk around Rishikesh

Some choice bruises on my thighs from yesterday’s massage attack.

Now sat in my hotel in Haridwar. My half-baked plan from this morning has solidified; rather than spend 27 hours of the following four days on coaches and potentially miss a trek in Nepal I’m going to return to Delhi and fly direct to Kathmandu on the 19th. I was confusing ‘miserable’ with ‘authentic’ and while I do want to see the non-touristy parts of Nepal I don’t think doing it via coach is how I want to do it. I need my own transport, really. I really want to maximise the time I have left on the trip, and to that end am making a trek my priority. After all the disappointments and abortive efforts to book them so far I feel like if I don’t do this, I won’t trek at all. Can’t go back without doing it, I’d feel like such a failure.

To that end I’ve booked another night here at Hotel Le Casa, and a mini-tour and one day trek with the reputable Mohan’s Adventure Tours tomorrow. After that will hop on a coach or take a taki back to Delhi on the 18th and spend the night in the terminal before flying out the following morning. V happy with how easily – almost entirely without panic – I made the decision. But as Indy says, that’s usually when the ground falls out from under you.

So far Haridwar feels a little like a blend of Agra and Rishikesh. It’s certainly more manic and less relaxed than R, which I already miss a bit, and all of a sudden I’m back in a bit of a spotlight as an obvious traveller.

The outskirts are a parade of half-completed buildings – their top floors open to the sky – and water towers.

The Maa Mansa Devi ropeway

Took the Maa Mansa Devi ropeway up to the temple overlooking the city. 90 minutes or so of subverted expectations. The ticket hall and waiting room for the short cable car is more like a UK train station than India’s train stations are, with tickets and barriers. A group of men stared at and then decided they needed a selfie with me. Somewhat used to it at this point but I’m not sure why.

Eventually my number was called and I stood up, brushing the crumbs from the veg pastry off my lap, and I joined the queue. As I did, a few shouts of seeming panic from behind me made me turn, and a young man taller than me ran up and handed me my cap, which I’d left behind. Smiled, thanked him, and then boarded the colourful four-person carriage – one of many painted in primary colours – up to the temple grounds.

Here was factory-floor religion – an assembly line of altars, shrines, smoke pits and priests, at the end of which a visitor emerged daubed with paint, suitably shriven, and hundreds of rupees lighter. I found the crush, narrow corridors and regular exhortation for donations quite stressful. It was as if I’d been queuing for the privilege of joining a queue. Some of the shrines were beautiful and there was plenty of colour – much of which had be painted onto my forehead by the end – but my overwhelming memory is one of the force of a crowd pushing me along a corridor. Felt a bit like leaving a gig.

Haridwar, from the hillside approach

You can’t see the temple exterior from the corridor or the hillside approach, the latter of which I walked back down after emerging, blinking, from the gift shop section of the temple.

Walked along the market road to reach the site of the ganga aarti. There are so many shops here, I’ve never seen a market like it. Tight, cramped routes between stalls that curve up and over you, and the odd permanent structure taken over by stalls built within them. The best shops were piled high with bric-a-brac, metal trinkets, apparel and groceries, all jostling for position. One section in particular had a series of shops filled with an appeal mix of rich woods, burnished metals and colourful beads. Really enjoyed walking through it – and ended up buying a tshirt to replace the one I left behind in Mussoorie by mistake.

The site of the ceremony was thronged when I reached it. Taking place on an island in the middle of two branches of the river, overlooked by pagoda-like structures and steps down to the bank. After handing my shoes over to a cloakroom attendant I hunkered down on the steps to watch. A monkey walked on wires across the river, some pre-match entertainment. The crowd waits expectantly as the sky darkens to night, and there’s a real air of anticipation.

The ganga aarti ceremony begins

The temple bells start clamouring, and people rush from the steps to the riverbank. There are suddenly flames and the light from camera flashes everywhere. Families pose by the banks and individuals are doused in the water from the river, which has turned from mud-grey to a tar and orange mix, dancing. It’s more frantic than the ceremony up in Rishikesh, and this one does feel a little rote, though I’m probably missing it.

After about half an hour the ceremony abruptly ends, and people hurry to beat the queues for the shoe stalls. I hung back for a while watching the rapid tidy-up. The area quickly becomes a thoroughfare again. A man with a flame passes through the thinning crowd; people wave their hands through the fire and deposit money in his bowl. He gestures too wildly, too close to me, and I fear for my eyebrows.

Wander back along the main road. Neon signs and restaurants are the norm here, only a few feet from the site of the ganga aarti and a hop and a jump away from the crowded market. A man approaches and offers to sell me a watch; I decline and walk on. After a few minutes I notice he’s still close behind me. When I duck into a Lonely Planet-recommended family-run restaurant for a (fantastic) dal bhat I can see him still lingering outside the entrance, occasionally ducking to look at me. Bit disconcerting, though he’s gone when I emerge and return to the hotel for supper.

Try my new tshirt on. It doesn’t even slightly fit.

Day 21: Haridwar

September 17th

Am writing this in a mud and riceplant hut in a Van Gujjar village, in the Rajaji National Park. Around 70 people live here, spread around three small hamlets. They mainly herd buffalo and are insulated from the city by the forests and Shivalik hills of the park. It’s a very traditional way of life, it seems. They won’t leave the park as they’d then have to buy food for the buffalo which are the basis of their lives. There are, however, solar panels that provide power for the bulbs at night and a modern tractor, so the outside world does include when convenient. This seems smart to me. The clothes everyone’s wearing, too, as the same you’d see being worn on the main road to Delhi – camo tshirts and jeans. There are more than a few mobiles and motorbikes knocking around, too.

The chief, through my guide Ashu, tells me that his family has lived here since 1917. They were forced to leave Afghanistan by a ruler who attempted to force them to convert. Most of the members of the group spend their entire lives around these villages – and he’s keen to stress that they’re all very happy here.

Since 1986 the government has been trying to move them off the land, ostensibly for safety’s sake. Tigers are apparently a threat, and the chief tells me he will regularly wake to hear elephants wandering through the village. Ashu tells me that government also believe the Van Gujjar are responsible for some deforestation of the park, though he seems to think the government are scapegoating them for that. The chief matter-of-factly tells me he does not believe the government will honour its promise of relocation to a similar area. For now, at least, they’re staying put, though the gov is also refusing to compensate them for accidents, floods etc. The chief tells me “a generation has passed and the government has done nothing” for them.

One of the villagers tells me he’s learning English with the intention of moving to Canada, though when I ask there seems to be an arbitrary way of deciding who gets educated and who doesn’t. Between the easy conversation, chief walking around with his youngest child, and the ease with which they invite me to see their houses, there’s a ridiculously friendly atmosphere here.

This is honestly bizarre. When I booked with Mohan’s Adventure Tours and Travels (famously Kate Winslet’s choice for making documentaries here) I made the mistake of mentioning I’m a journalist, and I spent the morning effectively interviewing the village about the injustices they’re facing. Meanwhile, I look back six pages and I’m being thirsty in Little Buddha Café. I love this.

It’s really interesting. The village has a school which, while it’s not in session, is used for drying meats etc. and looking round I can quite believe that elephants can just appear in its midst. Thick forest surrounds it, but the three villages seem to be built next to a dry(ish) riverbed, surrounded by fields for grazing.

Ashu wants the Van Gujjar to relocate, but only with a good deal from the government. To that end they’re aiming to educate the village kids, the chief and the heads of the union to negotiate with the government. Ashu comes here to teach English every Sunday and the kids obviously love him, shyly coming over in turn to say hi. In addition to their own unique language – Gujarati – they speak Hindi, so learning English on top of that from an early age seems insane to me.

Back in the hotel’s rooftop restaurant having concluded the tour. I really hope it stays with me. Now have the time to write some of the bits I missed while accidentally doing some journalism.

I arrived at Mohan’s shop at about 10am, and while I waited I was invited to flick through his professional photo album. He’s an extremely accomplished traveller, photographer and conservationalist – which is what got him on Kate Winslet’s call shortcuts. Sounds like a bit of an all-round hero and, when I told him I’m a journalist he offered to take me for free. Ended up refusing as I can’t guarantee anyone will run the story but it was a really nice gesture.

Prayer bell at the entrance to a temple

His assistant Ashu drove us the short distance to the Van Gujja village, though we stopped en route to visit a smallish temple. He explained the significance of the bells and rushes around the statue, and invited me to pour water from the nearby well over the statue. Just as we were leaving we saw a group of wild boar pushing through the undergrowth, and the smallest of the litter trailing behind a little way. Tried to take as many photos as I could, but they’re hardly Mohan-standard.

If you squint you can just see the boars

Before we left the village Ashu led me through some of the forest (I kept both eyes out for tigers) until we reached a river. Sometimes, he said, you can see elephants grazing here. He pointed out a baobab tree to me on the far bank, and told me that in some cultures they’re seen as the tree of life and a sort of silent, comforting confidante for things you can’t tell anyone else. In particular he told me about a previous tour guest attendee who’d gone over, hugged it, spoken to it and returned many minutes later, eyes wet with tears. She’d told him that her mother had died, and she told the tree all her feelings about it. We left it alone on the far bank, and returned to Haridwar.

After the visit – which I hope stays with me – back to the hotel. I went up to the rooftop restaurant to book accommodation for Kathmandu and for a snack, as I was starving. A monkey jumped onto the table to share my tomatoes and, as I stood to leave, I startled its baby. The mother monkey went berserk and chased me off the roof as I tried placating it with shushing noises and promises. Slammed the door closed to find a bemused porter bringing me lemonade and the bill.

Better times with my monkey friend

Wandered around the town a little then went to the Big Ben restaurant out of morbid curiosity. Inside it was a bit of a desolate hotel lobby with a nice restaurant on the side with a huge poster of Hollywood stars over the bar. Walked past it to a streetside café where I found something on the menu that sounded phonetically like ‘veg jalfrezi’ and ordered that and a garlic nan. Incredible meal.

Simple and satisfying (and sideways)

Tomorrow is – somehow – my last full day in India, and most of it will be spent on a coach or at the airport. It’ll take a while before I know how to feel about Northern India – there’s been some real highs and lows – but I know the amazing food will be one of the things I miss.

Day 22: Haridwar – Delhi

September 18th

Woke up to some alarming texts from Bhupi, my taxi driver from Delhi – he of the ‘we have to stop here’ light scam – to let me know he’s in Rishikesh. I let him know I was just down the road (relatively) and he immediately replied asking where I was. Said I didn’t need a taxi, but he says he just wants to hang out or whatever. Decided to let him down gently and say I was jumping on a coach. It should have been true.

Instead, checked out – hauling my insanely large backpack onto my shoulders – and ran into one of those inevitable delays that adds nothing but stress to a journey. My coach at 11:30 wasn’t full enough to leave, so I’m now allegedly on the 14:30 departure instead. This should get me into Delhi just before 21:00, which should have me at the airport for 22:00. There’s plenty of time but the margin for error has been shaved by about three hours. It’s stress I could do without, and the instructions to ‘roam around’ in the meantime feel a little unhelpful. Did go to Big Ben this time, in order to have some tea and plan where I can pick up a trek in Kathmandu. Hopefully this will get me into Pokhara to spend a few days there before I have to head back. Feels both an insanely short and ridiculously long time away before I board the flight back to Gatwick.

An evening view over Haridwar

Before I left my plan was to update the Google calendar every day so my family could see my plans for the next few weeks. That almost immediately fell by the wayside, so I used this time to update that – if only so I can double check dates etc. if I write this diary up later.

On the right coach but the wrong seat this time, a neat reversal of my last road journey out of Delhi. Am glad I had practice on the back of a moped in Rishikesh, as I had to perch with my backpack as an older man from Mohan’s shop drove me, threading through traffic, to a motorway junction. He waved a coach down and I had to leap on as it slowed to a crawl in an intersection. No idea how the Indian bus system works.

One mystery solved, though. A quirk of translation means ‘single’ here implies ‘on your own’, which explains the laughter when I replied ‘no, got a girlfriend’ to the question on the path up Neer Garh.

Writing this on the ground outside Indira Ghandi Int. Airport terminal 3. Insanely hot; I have to shift to find a cooler patch of concrete every now and then. It’s dark already and I have 9 hours to go until my flight leaves. Knackered, hot and dying to reach Kathmandu.

The coach journey was very uneventful, which I think confirms my suspicions I’d have been bored out of my skull over the 27 hours on coaches I’d planned to take initially. Got nervous on the approach to Delhi again, I think partly from tiredness and partly because it was the urban sprawl that i thrown into when I first arrived. A huge traffic jam slowed our progress to a crawl for the last two hours, and we ended up next to a truck packed to the gills with teenagers and huge speakers, which were blasting music out at a level that would make a metal band envious.

Behind them towards the horizon, half-finished buildings, tons of tents and children trying to sell items to cars stopped at traffic lights. This is my least favourite part of India that I’ve seen, the rest of which has been mostly beautiful. It’s a shame, in a way, that it’s both my first and last impressions of it this trip.

These are the moments from India I remember most clearly

I.G.I Airport claims to be number one in the world in signs plastered over the terminal, but I don’t see what it’s number one for. It charges a visitors’ fee to enter the section with a nap room and spa, which also contains the coffee shops, so everyone waiting for departures has to sit on the ground until they’re allowed in.

Eventually let inside, though still couldn’t drop my rucksack off as it was too early. Had a sleep on the ground, using my bag as a pillow, under the bright fluorescence of the lights, feeling stained and exhausted but contented. Went through security and tried to kip by the gate.

Woken up by my name over the intercom, and was escorted to bag security along with a father and son who waited placidly while I shifted from foot to foot. I’d left my power bank in my rucksack, and gratefully stuffed it into my little bag and hurried back to the gate. Rapid walk through some empty areas of an airport that could have been anywhere in the world, and boarded with plenty of time to spare.

Left India in a bit of a rush. Gutted – so gutted – not to have seen Ladakh or much at all of Himachal Pradesh. But that’s what next times are for.

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